Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Casein

Did you know that you can make your own plastics material at home using milk? 

There are various methods and recipes available online to make casein but essentially all you need to do is heat up some skimmed milk in a saucepan and when warm, slowly add a small amount of vinegar and stir. The milk will separate into curds and whey and then, by straining off the liquid, you are left with a doughy material that can be coloured, moulded into shape and left to dry. It is a fun project for short-lived creations such as Christmas tree decorations because over time the material will likely split and break apart or go mouldy. In commercial casein, these issues are resolved by hardening and preserving the plastic with formaldehyde. 

Casein was first patented in 1899 and, like the other early semi-synthetic plastics, at first it played a key role in imitating natural materials, finding a particular market in successfully copying horn. It was commonly used for small items such as buttons, cutlery handles and knitting needles

There is a lovely story that credits the discovery of this plastic to a cat belonging to German chemist Adolf Spitteler: the pet had knocked a bottle of formaldehyde into its milk which, upon discovery the next morning, had turned solid. How ever this discovery did actually take place, the patent was filed by Spitteler and his collaborator, printer Wilhelm Krische, who had been looking for a way to waterproof paper as an alternative to the slate boards used by schoolchildren in the classroom. Further development of the manufacturing process led to the introduction of casein as a stable, mouldable material under the trade names of Galalith (German/French), Syrolit, Erinoid, Neolyte, Lactoid and Dorcasine (UK), as well as Aladdinite, Karolith, Inda and Ameroid (US) amongst others. 

Although MoDiP has a small number of casein objects, we have just recently taken delivery of a whole lot more (see image below) through the private collection of the late John Morgan, a renowned UK casein expert and collector. In due course we will be examining everything in detail alongside the Plastics Historical Society, as we will both be taking responsibility for the long-term care of this superb legacy.
Until such time that we can complete the curatorial tasks of accessioning, cataloguing, photography and re-storing the objects in conservation-grade materials, the collection all needed to be stored away. Just before I did this, I had a quick peek inside some of the boxes and here are just a few of my favourite things: 

Buttons – lots and lots of buttons including blanks and an oversized, extremely heavy, wood-effect, promotional example.
Some lovely dressing table sets, with a close-up of the detail on the mirror back. I particularly love this shade of green.
Several pen sets including the ‘cracked ice’ colour effect seen in the blue example on the right.
Cocktail sticks (left) and a set of six knives (right).
Valuable archival material.
And finally, all of the boxes nicely organised in the museum’s store.
Katherine Pell 
Collections Officer 

References: 

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